The barbershops of old were places where gents could retreat from the world and enjoy a bit of friendly banter, all while tending to the practicalities of grooming. For childhood friends Luke Newman and Steve Purcell, it was this rich heritage of barbering that inspired them to take up the age-old trade at a time when barbershops were floundering. Sharing a vision to rejuvenate barbering, they opened their own barbershop almost as soon as they finished their apprenticeships, but quickly noticed a lack of quality men’s grooming products on the market. What followed was the creation of Uppercut Deluxe – a range of men’s haircare products that embraces the traditions of barbering and takes the pomp out of grooming.
As children, Steve Purcell and Luke Newman both dreamed of getting out school. Joking that they suffer from ADD, the two recall that school just wasn’t the right fit for them. They met at a young age, instantly bonded over their love of skating and have remained close friends ever since.
By the time Steve turned 16, he was determined to see his childhood dream through and abandon homework forever – the only thing standing in his way was his parents, who insisted he find a job first. Fortuitously, Steve had been admitted to the gentleman’s club of the barbershop as a child, and it was his childhood memories of visiting the barber that inspired him to take up a barbering apprenticeship. “I used to go every three weeks as a kid with my grandfather,” Steve recalls. “I would get a Bubble O’ Bill and sit in the barbershop and just watch it. No-one cheated on their barber, it was this really cool underground culture.”
Luke’s first encounter with barbering came later than Steve’s, as he decided to study graphic design after school. But feeling disillusioned with the work he was churning out as a graduate, he set off to Portland to help a friend who was building skate parks. While he was in Portland, a barbershop near his favourite coffee spot caught his eye and, after passing the locale each day, he returned to Australia, inspired to find a barber’s apprenticeship.
Both remember “copping it” for cutting hair when they started out, but they laugh as they explain that the same people who gave them a hard time now frequent their barbershop. Neither of them cared at the time, however, because they were so enamoured by the charm of barbering and could see its potential.
Musing on the current redux of barbering, Luke explains that it comes from a return to tradition. “It was such a clubhouse for a guy and there’s not many places like that anymore,” he says of the barbershops of old. “Society is so fast and everything is just so hectic. That’s why coffee shops do so well and so do barbershops – they are places for guys just to sit down and relax, and I suppose guys feel so comfortable in the barbershop.”
“And when you have a guy cut your hair, a guy can relate to a guy,” Steve adds.
This may be the case now, but it certainly wasn’t when the pair pooled their hard-earned pennies to start their own barbershop, Bare Bones in Morningside, six years ago. “When we started it, we wanted it to be just like a garage where a guy could come to hang out, talk to his mates and just get a haircut,” Luke says.
But despite the fact that they had created the ultimate man’s retreat, they worried that their concept could fail. “We had to save the money up ourselves because the banks didn’t understand the concept, so it was all self-funded,” Steve explains. “We were scared dudes just wouldn’t understand, but they did and slowly but surely it got really busy.”
As trade picked up and customers began to embrace the heritage of men’s grooming, Luke and Steve continued to struggle to find haircare products their customers could relate to. Men’s products either had a distinct rockabilly or metrosexual feel, and they wanted to create something in between. Their idea was to create a pomade that would pay homage to Luke’s grandfather Willy ‘Uppercut’ O’Shea – a boxer who led a tough life. “He was just such a dapper old dude,” Luke recalls. “He always slicked his hair and had his fedora and his tie, but no money. We thought it was such a cool story and it was what we wanted Uppercut to be. We don’t want it to be this prissy brand, but one from blue-collar roots.”
The only issue was that, while Steve had plenty of product knowledge, neither of them had any experience in actually making hair products. But after a long search, they found someone who could execute their vision and, soon after, an Uppercut Deluxe pomade was introduced to the stable of products in their shop.
Their vision for the product was to use and sell it in their barbershop, and hopefully have it stocked in a few other barbershops, but this was quickly surpassed. As word spread, Luke and Steve began to take calls not only from barbers wanting to stock the product, but also from clothing boutiques. And soon after that, stockists began asking whether products such as shampoo and conditioner could be added to the range, which is when Luke and Steve faced one of their greatest challenges – stepping away from full-time barbering and their clients. While they had never dreamed their careers would take such a turn when they first opened the doors to their barbershop, they could see the potential of Uppercut Deluxe and instinctively knew it needed their full focus.
In the five years since they launched Uppercut Deluxe, Luke and Steve have grown the brand to the point where it is now stocked in the UK and the USA. Despite the popularity of their products, however, they still wonder if the idea could have materialised in the first place were it not for what they describe as a “perfect storm”. Steve had a strong knowledge of hair products and Luke was able to create the branding, but it was Steve’s wife Keira’s background in skincare sales that helped them market the product. Keira now works full-time with Luke and Steve, assisting with leading the team and nurturing the family vibe the gents are proud to have fostered amongst their staff.
When asked about their idea of success, both point to achieving a balance that will allow them to engage in rewarding work, but also take time out when it’s needed. And after five years of long working weeks spent pushing the brand beyond the fledgling phase, they’re almost at this point. Luke is excited to have more time to spend with his newborn son, and Steve is eager to spend more time in the surf, but the idea is still new to the pair. “You have got to retrain your brain to think ‘well I can just enjoy that now’,” Steve explains.
As for their business success, they attribute part of it to their partnership. “Everything comes around on the merry go round,” Steve says. “I might need a bit of time off on a Thursday morning and Luke won’t hold me to it to make that time up. We understand that that’s just life sometimes, and we just try to be fair.”
Their other secret to success is making decisions with a long-term dream in mind. “If you have a dream or a vision for something, you have just got to stick to it,” Luke says. “Don’t take the quick wins, because you will end up somewhere where you don’t want to be,” Steve adds. “Take the long-term win. It’s harder to get and it’s harder work, but long term it’s better.”
– This article was published in map magazine.